Magazine article The Spectator

The Years of Pain

Magazine article The Spectator

The Years of Pain

Article excerpt

I'm an old hand at cancer. I've had it nearly half my life

I remember the exact day my illness first declared itself. Twenty-seven years ago. Thursday 20 October 1988. My then wife and I were at a viewing of Harry Hook's The Kitchen Toto at the Strode Theatre in Street when I felt a sudden, crippling pain in my back. Being 35 and a grown-up, I tried to ignore it. But the pain came back when we went for a pizza that evening, and I ended up crawling to the gents', mewling and cawing.

It took me 11 days to summon up the courage to go to my GP. 'I'm having terrible pain on the left of my spine. I passed something like a piece of liver in my urine. And I've got a lump on one testicle.' The GP looked me up and down, as if to say, what is a young man like you doing in a place like this? 'You've had a kidney stone but you've passed it,' he said, at length. 'And there's nothing whatsoever wrong with your testicle. Now off you go and let me treat patients who are really ill.'

A few days later I left for France, to look for a house in which to save my marriage. By the summer of 1989, I had the house in France, my marriage was over, and my left kidney had collapsed and was threatening to poison me. 'We need to take the kidney out fast,' my French doctor said. 'I'm sending you to Purpan Hospital in Toulouse.'

Over the next four years I was to visit every hospital in Toulouse many times. Purpan. Rangueil. Claudius Regaud. The surgeon at Purpan took out my kidney in an eight-hour operation. 'Cutting through the muscles of your stomach was like slicing through thick dough,' he said. I felt flattered. It's odd how vanity and ego can so easily defeat common sense. When I left the hospital, the weather outside peaked at 44°C. Aged 36, I began to understand what it would be like to be old, as I could only walk at a pathetic shuffle, and it took me ten interminable minutes in the sweltering sunshine to reach the bus.

Thus began three terrible, pain-filled years. My doctor, who had become a friend by now, told me that the excruciating agony in my back and leg was due to adhesions from my kidney operation. I believed her. Just as I'd believed the Glastonbury GP. I became a master of pain medicines. I learnt yoga. I spent unconscionable hours beneath boiling hot showers. And still the pain didn't go away.

I finally went to an arthritis expert in Gourdon. Sucking on a cigarette, he told me to stretch forwards over his doctor's couch and stick my bum in the air. He touched me on the back. I screamed. 'Well,' he said. 'You are either imagining this, or you have a tumour.' He sent me for an X-ray. It showed nothing. 'Please,' I said. 'Please. Just look harder.' The doctor looked. 'Well, there might be a small shadow here.' He prodded the photo. I was sent for a scan. When I went in to see the consultant he shook his head sadly. 'You have ganglions,' he said. 'Many ganglions.'

'What are ganglions?' I said. He seemed taken aback. 'Tumours,' he said. 'You have tumours. All over your lymph system. You have one wrapped around your aorta and touching your sciatic nerve. That is why you have been having so much pain these last three years.' I nearly wept with relief. At last! I might be dying, but I finally knew what I was dying of. When my French doctor realised that she had been misdiagnosing me for three years, she burst into ungovernable tears. I knew exactly how she felt. …

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